Portrait from the Washington Evening Times, December 11, 1896.
A one term Mayor of Washington City, District of Columbia (then a separate entity from neighboring Georgetown), Sayles Jenks Bowen can be justly referred to as one of the great unsung mayors in American history. A native of New York state, Bowen migrated to the nation's capital in the mid-1840s and after stints as a clerk in the Treasury Department, police commissioner and postmaster of Washington, Bowen was elected as mayor of our nation's capital in 1868. An avowed abolitionist, the forward-thinking Bowen became the first Washington mayor to oversee schools for African-Americans in the city, and following his one term in office continued as a civil rights advocate and a trustee of black schools.
Born on October 7, 1813 in Scipio, New York, Sayles Jenks Bowen was the son of Josiah and Deborah (Jenks) Bowen, both natives of Massachusetts. A student in "common schools" local to the Cayuga County area, Bowen also worked the family farm and during his adolescence taught school during the winter months. He would marry on July 2, 1835 to Mary Barker (1815-1882). The couple were wed for over four decades and would have two daughters, Ann Jennet (1843-1850) and Hattie Barker Bowen (1855-1860).
Following his marriage, Bowen worked at "mercantile pursuits" in his home state from 1838-42, and during this time gained an ally in fellow Cayuga County native Millard Fillmore, then serving as Lieutenant Governor of New York. With backing from his friend Fillmore, Bowen would secure a clerkship in the U.S. Treasury Department, and by 1845 he and his wife had resettled in Washington, D.C.
Bowen's three years at the treasury department saw him serving under Treasury Secretary Robert Walker, a prominent figure in the James K. Polk administration. Bowen would draw the ire of Walker in 1848 due to the former's "Free Soil Party" sympathies, and as a firm abolitionist went as far as distributing anti-slavery literature. These acts (as well as Bowen's failure to endorse the candidacy of Lewis Cass for President), eventually led to Bowen's dismissal from his clerkship.
A supporter of Martin Van Buren's Free Soil Party candidacy in 1848, Sayles Bowen worked as a claims agent and by the late 1850s had become a rising figure in the newly formed Republican Party. Upon the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 Bowen began his rise through local politics, being appointed as Commissioner of Police for the District of Columbia. His time in that post would be short-lived, however, as he resigned later that same year to accept the appointment as disbursing officer for the U.S. Senate. In 1862 he advanced to the post of Collector of Internal Revenue for the District of Columbia and in the year following began a five-year tenure as U.S. Postmaster at Washington, D.C. The Civil War years saw Bowen continue to press for equal rights for black citizens, and during this time served as president of the District of Columbia's National Freedman's Relief Association.
The year 1868 proved to be a landmark one for Sayles J. Bowen, as he was elected as Mayor of the city of Washington during one of the most important elections in the city's history. Newly enfranchised black voters were able to vote for mayor of the city for the first time, and due to Bowen's record on civil rights turned out en-mass for him at the polls. Eking out a narrow victory over John T. Given, Bowen took office that year with a grandiose vision for the city, including the development of public works projects that employed former slaves, as well as the hope to integrate city schools.
Acknowledged as the first Washington mayor to "establish public schools for colored children", Bowen's vision put him at odds with a great many white citizens residing in the city, some of whom went as far as to accuse him of being more concerned with civil rights than the city improvements he had started earlier in his term. Bowen was undeterred, however, and he is remarked as having been the first mayor of Washington to promote black citizens to political positions within the city government, and when city officials balked at the possibility of continuing to fund black schools in the city, Bowen used $20,000 of his own money to keep them afloat.
During his mayoralty, Bowen was both a delegate to the 1868 Republican National Convention from the District of Columbia and from 1866-72 represented the District of Columbia on the Republican National Committee. The Bowen administration also saw the adoption of a system of street parking, which was passed by an act of Congress in 1870.
Sayles J. Bowen.
During the two years of his mayoralty the optimism that had initially bolstered Bowen's first few months in office waned, and a number of less progressive Washingtonians began to plan for the mayoral election of 1870. Bowen's last months in office were marred by the fact that many public works projects were left uncompleted, with hundreds of miles of city streets still lacking pavement and sewer lines. The city's rising debt proved to be another contributing factor for the "old-line" Washingtonians search for a new mayor, and in the election of 1870 Bowen was defeated by Democratic candidate Matthew Gault Emery (1818-1901).
Bowen's life following his mayoralty saw him serving as trustee and treasurer of the Public Schools for Colored Children in the district, as well as a regent of the Smithsonian Institution and director of the St. Elizabeth's Insane Asylum. Widowed in 1882, Bowen remarried in June of the following year to Elizabeth "Bessie" Boyd Bentley (1842-1904), to whom he was wed until his death, which occurred on December 16, 1896. He was later interred at the Congressional Cemetery alongside his wife Mary. On May 9, 2017, I was lucky enough to visit the Congressional Cemetery to seek out Bowen's gravesite (amongst many others), and a few photos from that trip conclude his profile here.